Tormented guardians, and how to survive them

A woman sits on a dark couch with her face obscured by a laptop

A mentor should be a source of support, but a bad one can turn your internship career into a nightmare.Credit: Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty

A mentor is a guide by your side who can help you develop your career, encouraging you as you succeed and cheering you on when you fail. But what happens when your mentor becomes uncooperative or resistant, or ghosts you altogether, ending communication abruptly? Your mentor has now become a tormentor.

In the laboratory environment, the principal investigator is often the “primary mentor,” which involves helping the fellow develop professionally and paving the way for future endeavors. Other mentors may include faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and managers.

The consequences of poor mentoring are wide-ranging, from delayed career advancement to an intern leaving science altogether.

We have both written about scientific careers, researched the world of scientific mentoring, and developed mentoring programs. We’ve both been lucky enough to be mentors, and have helped others escape bad mentoring relationships. We have some tips for identifying and recognizing poor mentoring.

The examples below show poor mentoring in the workplace, although there are extreme cases such as verbal abuse or physical abuse. In cases of abuse or exploitation, we recommend seeking help directly from appropriate institutional authorities, such as campus police, your human resources department, or any intermediary.

Harmful behavior can damage an intern’s career, or even their health. Here are some tips on how to identify and address them.

Common bullying behaviors

The ghost’s mentor. This tutor does not have an unreasonably long delay in providing feedback on time-sensitive matters such as manuscripts and presentations. Failure to respond to follow-up messages prevents the intern from advancing their career. Mentors can stall projects, set unrealistic goals, or create unnecessary obstacles to progress. This could result in a delay in the intern’s academic timeline and many setbacks to his professional goals.

Elitist mentor. This mentor chooses to submit papers only to high-impact journals, reducing the intern’s chances of publication. This can delay or prevent a publication altogether, thus limiting the trainee’s future employment opportunities.

Paranoid mentor. This mentor forbids or staunchly defends public presentations or other collaborative proposals at conferences, for fear of receiving their work. This may result in the fellow missing out on building valuable science communication skills or connecting with potential collaborators. As science moves towards groups, this behavior becomes increasingly harmful.

Dementor mentor. This type of mentor, like the happiness-suppressing creatures in the Harry Potter books for which they are named, holds out support or encouragement when their student faces scientific difficulties, such as a rejected paper, a failed experiment, or a poor grant score. Dementor mentors can leave the internship to navigate projects alone, though many need more hands-on guidance. When the trainee needs a cheerleader and an alternative authoritative point of view, dementors lack the emotional intelligence to provide the necessary support.

These behaviors can affect trainees’ psychosocial needs, leading to feelings of insignificance in the laboratory environment, reduced sense of self-efficacy, increased impostor syndrome, and burnout. This goes beyond ghosting because the mentor does not provide essential emotional support.

How to deal with pain

A bully can be an obstacle to success, but interns don’t have to stay in an unhappy mentor relationship. There are steps they can take to draw a line under past misunderstandings and move on, or to widen the mentoring net to include other approaches. As a last resort, they can move labs.

Often, the power dynamic favors the mentor, leaving the trainee feeling powerless, especially if the mentor has direct line management responsibility or directs the lab. If you’re a trainee in a bad mentoring relationship, here are five steps you can take to avoid the pain and regain your power.

Interpersonal relationships are complicated, and this tip isn’t a silver bullet that will solve all your mentoring problems, but it will help you identify toxic behaviors. Only you can decide whether a behavior is acute or chronic, and how much you can and need to handle. In a bad mentoring relationship, you may feel exhausted, overwhelmed, or isolated, and knowing that the management style and mentoring you are receiving may be outside of acceptable norms can help you validate your feelings. Then you can decide on a course of action.

Name your next goal

Instead of working toward an undefined destination, clearly state your next professional goal to both yourself and your mentor. For example, if you are a PhD student, perhaps defending your thesis is your next major milestone. Naming your goal will help you align your activities, manage your time, and let you know what guidance to seek from your mentor.

Start developing a plan

Setting deadlines brings goals to life. Come to a mentoring meeting with a clear goal and plan. Ask your mentor to help you refine your plan and develop a timeline, and find out if there are any challenges you need to address. You can also ask them to refer you to others for further guidance or support. For example, if your goal is to defend your thesis, what are the next logical steps? Perhaps you need to have a manuscript by first author or complete a series of experiments.

Report it to your mentor group

When you’re in the middle of a chaotic situation, you can have blind spots that can cause you to miss areas of potential conflict. When you’re so entrenched in these situations it’s hard to see the big picture and the nuances. It’s always a good idea to have more than one mentor, and surrounding yourself with a diverse group can offer new perspectives on difficult situations, and sometimes your mentors can advocate on your behalf.

Analyzing professional dynamics

Not all setbacks are caused by a tormenting mentor. Is your mentor being overly harsh or creating legitimate obstacles? Consider whether there are more factors at play than you initially considered, and how to address them. For example, the project may not be as robust as it could be, and needs additional work to sustain the final product. However, asking you to do what you think is unnecessary work could be a sign of the mentor’s lack of confidence about the project, or about you as a trainee. It might be time to start keeping a paper trail documenting obstacles if you feel like your mentor is holding you back. Check with your other supervisors, if you have them, or your thesis committee.

Reassess your options

If you’ve taken all the other steps and still encounter insurmountable roadblocks, it may be a good time to explore alternative options such as a mentor, a new lab, or a layoff as you reevaluate your future. without toxic daily interference. It is natural to feel frustrated, upset, and disappointed as you grieve the lab experience you had hoped for. Change is hard in any case; doing it under duress is especially challenging and overwhelming.

The professional goals you have just defined can guide your way forward. Use the lessons from your experience with a bully as a guide to what to avoid in future mentoring dynamics. When looking for a new mentor, interview both the mentor and current interns to find out how the mentor will support your goals.

Bad mentoring is worse than no mentoring at all. However, toxic mentoring doesn’t have to be a life sentence. There are opportunities to take action, accomplish your goals, and relieve your pain.

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